Merry Christmas - an Icon tells the Story

Merry Christmas - an Icon tells the Story

Icon of the Nativity

I am writing this on Friday the 23rd, but let me take the opportunity to wish you a Merry Christmas.  I wanted to share with you this icon of the Nativity which is a fairly standard image in iconography and which works together to tell the story of the birth of Jesus.  Remember that Icons developed in an age when many could not read, and the images in them helped to tell the story of the faith and pass that faith on to the people.  The same can be said for stained glass windows, religious carvings, and the many ways that churches have been decorated through the ages.  These images which appeared in the church were not just to make the inside of the building look pretty, they were there to tell the story and help people remember all that God has done for us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So if you take a look at the image there are several parts of the Christmas story which you will recognize.  The center of the icon is Mary reclining after giving birth to our Lord Jesus. If we look at the icon you will see that Mary and Jesus are surrounded with all types of imagery all of which point to the reality of who Jesus Christ is and why he has come to us. 

Notice that this is no stable that our Lord is born in here. In this image we see Christ being born in a cave.  If you were ever to go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem you would see that Jesus that it was a cave that was being used as a stable for animals.  This was common at the time because caves had a natural roofs.  Notice that the mountain or hill that surrounds the cave are rocky and craggy with almost pointy edges.  This is to remind us that Jesus came into this world which can be sharp, and hard, and can cause us pain and suffering.  If we look at the very center of the icon we will notice that the cave is the darkness which is broken by the light of Christ.  In this particular version we can see the small dot of light shining out in the darkness above the head of Jesus.  Also Jesus is wrapped in the white clothes reminding us of the purity and light that he is which breaks through the darkness of sin and death.

 If we continue to look at the image of our Lord we will notice that what can be seen as a cave, a manger, and swaddling clothes; could also be interpreted as images of a tomb, a burial vault, and bands of cloth that would be used to wrap Jesus body in and prepare him for burial.  This is not because the iconographers are trying to be morbid.  But it is to remind us that this one who is the baby in the manger, is also Christ the Lord who came to die for the sake of the world.  This is the one who would be crucified, die and be placed in the tomb.  But again as we look at this icon which points to the birth and the life of Christ - we are reminded that even through the darkness of death - Jesus shines and is the one who did rise again.  Also we are pointed to the fact that because of him - we too shall rise.

It is important also to notice that Christ is the exact center of this icon and that thereby the story seems to radiate out from him.  Or maybe it is better to say - all of the story - and all of the world is drawn into him who is the light of the world.

Now if we look at the top of the icon we see the star, whose rays are pointing down toward Jesus.  You may also notice that in the star image there seem to be several stars gathered together.  This is not saying that the Star of Bethlehem was in fact a constellation.  It is saying that all of the heavens are pointing down, or kneeling down toward the Messiah.  All of the heavens turn toward him in reverence and awe - and with that all of nature - bows before the incarnate Lord.  The one who made them to begin with.  Also notice that this beam that is coming from the star seem to be splitting the rock in two and there is not a line between Jesus who is on earth and the heavens.  That is because in Jesus Christ the veil that divides heaven and earth has been rent asunder.  Jesus came to us to bring the life of heaven to us. 

Above the manger where Jesus lay we see angels.  These have both literal and symbolic meaning.  They are the literal representation of the gospel of Luke where the angel (on the right) appears to the shepherds and says - Be not afraid for unto you the Messiah has come.  Then right after that the sky is full heavenly hosts singing a praising God in heaven.  So we have the imprint of this story here.

But symbolically we have something more and that is the neat thing about these icons, they speak on several levels.  Notice again the angel on the right above the shepherds.  This angel is standing literally between the ray from heaven and the shepherds.  If you look closely you can see the angels hand is extended and it looks almost like he is giving a blessing.  Why would he be doing this?  Because the birth of Christ is a blessing from heaven to the earth, God is blessing them with the good news of the birth of Jesus and blessing them with the fact that Christ has come. 

On the left we have three angels together.  Why three?  Well quite possibly the angels represent the three members of the Holy Trinity.  There is a famous icon by iconographer Andrei Rublev, which is called The Trinity, and it shows three angels (the three who have come to visit Abraham) sitting down for a meal.  It often occurs in iconography that the Trinity appears in this form as three angels close together. 

You might say, why is the Trinity there when we see Jesus lying in the manger - isn't Jesus a member of the Trinity?  If you had this objection I love you even more, because you are absolutely right.  Jesus is the Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity.  I think what is going on here is two things.  The icon is reminding us that the FULLNESS of who God is has come and all of the TRINITY has shown up in Jesus.  Also it is reminding us that even though our Lord Christ is lying in the manger - he is still the Lord of all through whom all things came into being.  He is God and nothing will ever change that.  He can be lying in the manger and controlling all of reality at the same time.  So with the presence of the three angels we are reminded that this one who has come is nothing less than the fullness of who God is that has taken on flesh and lived among us. Also notice that this image of the Trinity is on earth, God is touching earth here.  That is exactly who and what Jesus does and is.

 Now as we move to the bottom of the icon I want to point out the small trees and the two images.  The trees are there to represent the Root of Jesse's stem, and the branch of David.  You will remember that Jesus is the promised Messiah from the line of David - that is why the trees are there.

These two other images you might not be familiar with.  There is a pair of women giving a baby a bath, and there is an old man talking to a not so old man.  These images are part of stories which are not in the bible but in the early days of the church were associated with and around the nativity.  I tell them to you because they are sort of fun and you might enjoy them.

The ladies at the bottom left are supposed to be midwives or maids who come to help Mary with the birth.  Part of this story comes from what is called the Protoevangelium of James.  Isn't that a wonderful name?  It was a book from the second century which talked about the life of Mary.  As such it has an account that when Jesus was born Joseph brought in a midwife and a woman who is named Salome to assist with the birth.  After Jesus was born the two women took the baby and gave him his first bath - which we see here.  The ties to baptism should be clear, that in this story (which again is not in the Bible) that we see that the first thing that Christ does in his life in this world is he is washed clean - the link for us being that our first moments in the Christian life are when we are washed clean in the waters of baptism. 

On the other side of the frame we see these two men sitting.  The younger of the two looks distraught.  You may also the younger man has a halo whereas the older man in the coat and hat doesn't.  The sad looking man is Joseph, the protector of Jesus, the adopted father of our Lord.  What is going on here is part of another OLD story about the birth of Jesus - again not a Biblical tradition but something that was known as part of the tradition of the nativity.  (Sort of the same way that Davey Crockett was a real person - but there is also a song that he killed a bear when he was three - yeah that bear thing didn't happen but still a good story).  So here we see Joseph and the story goes that Satan came disguised as an old man.  He sees the already down trodden Joseph and starts to ask whose baby that is.  Satan is essentially turning the screw saying to Joseph, "That's not your baby," or "She's lying to you". 

The significance of this is that it reminds us that this is a remarkable thing which God has done in Christ.  A virgin little girl getting pregnant and having a baby - and by the way that baby is God in the flesh.  Yeah that is crazy and we wouldn't be able to ever expect that God would do such a thing had God not done it.  This image speaks to us then and reminds us that we can't figure out the incarnation and the great mystery of God coming to us by using our mental faculties.  Because what God has done in the incarnation so far defies expectation and explanation. 

God has done something new and amazing - God has come in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I think that is probably enough for today, if you have any questions about this icon, icons in general, or want to see up close a version of what we have been talking about here, come by my office - or send me a question through the contact address on this website. 

I pray that you have a Merry Christmas.  I pray that God will bless you and keep you.  And I hope that you will know the Peace of Christ which passes all understanding. 

And Please - Go To Church.  Jesus will be there, and maybe just maybe the Holy Spirit will speak to you and help you move closer to the heart of God.

In Christ

Pastor Mike

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